Forensic Science & Lying + Tiny Sneak Peek at Liar

There were two fascinating articles in the New York Times yesterday both of which related strongly to Liar, my novel that comes out in October in both Australia and the USA.

Article the first by Natalie Angier is about a school were forensic science is one of the classes you can take and it’s insanely popular. This is increasingly the case all over the USA:

And though the forensic menu at New Rochelle is unusually extensive, schools everywhere are capitalizing on the subject’s sex appeal to inspire respect for the power of the scientific mind-set generally. According to an informal survey of 285 high school and middle school teachers conducted in 2007 by the National Science Teachers Association, 75 percent replied yes when asked, “Do you or other teachers in your district use forensic investigation in the science classroom?” A third of the respondents said the subject was woven into the regular science curriculum, a quarter listed forensics as a stand-alone course at their school, and one-fifth replied, we do both. Bring out your dead!

I really wish I had known about these classes before I wrote Liar because I definitely would have added forensic science to the curriculum of my invented school. When you read the novel you’ll know why it would have worked so well. Mmmm . . . maggots. You all know this novel is my first mystery/thriller, right?

The other article by Benedict Carey is about new techniques for determining whether people are lying or not. As you can imagine I did a lot of research on why people lie and how lies can be detected when I was writing Liar. The method the article discusses focusses on what people say when questioned not on how they say it:

In part, the work grows out of a frustration with other methods. Liars do not avert their eyes in an interview on average any more than people telling the truth do, researchers report; they do not fidget, sweat or slump in a chair any more often. They may produce distinct, fleeting changes in expression, experts say, but it is not clear yet how useful it is to analyze those.

Nor have technological advances proved very helpful. No brain-imaging machine can reliably distinguish a doctored story from the truthful one, for instance; ditto for polygraphs, which track changes in physiology as an indirect measure of lying.

“Focusing on content is a very good idea,” given the limitations of what is currently being done, said Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It turns out that details are key:

In several studies, Dr. Colwell and Dr. Hiscock-Anisman have reported one consistent difference: People telling the truth tend to add 20 to 30 percent more external detail than do those who are lying. “This is how memory works, by association,” Dr. Hiscock-Anisman said. “If you’re telling the truth, this mental reinstatement of contexts triggers more and more external details.”

Unsurprisingly that’s one of the things successful liars talk about. Micah, the liar who is the protagonist of my next novel, puts it this way:

Details. They’re the key to lying.

The more detailed you are the more people believe. Not piled on one after another after another—don’t tell too much. Ever. Too many details, that’s too many things that can be checked.

Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot.

Verisimilitude, one of my English teachers called it. The details that give something the appearance of being real. It’s at the heart of a good lie, a story that has wings.

That’s also a description of writing fiction. There’s a lot of overlap between the techniques of the skilled liar and the skilled story teller. Though the study cited above makes it sound like Micah’s wrong: more details need to be piled on to be really convincing. Most people don’t tell what’s happened to them in the ordered way a story is written. They often spill out too many details that get in the way of the story. Micah’s right, though, that too many details leave you vulnerable cause they can be checked. Tricky situation for the liar.

I wonder if we’ll ever be in a position where we can absolutely know whether someone is lying or not?

The article mentions some of the limitations of the new technique:

It applies only to a person talking about what happened during a specific time — not to individual facts, like, “Did you see a red suitcase on the floor?” It may be poorly suited, too, for someone who has been traumatized and is not interested in talking, Dr. Morgan said. And it is not likely to flag the person who changes one small but crucial detail in a story—“Sure, I was there, I threw some punches, but I know nothing about no knife”—or, for that matter, the expert or pathological liar.

But it’s a huge step forward that more and more law enforcement around the world are shying away from coercion and phony science (i.e. lie detector machines) and looking closely at the words actually said and the context in which they’re said. Who knows maybe one day false arrest and imprisonment will be impossible.

Yes, I woke up in a utopian kind of mood.

Request to mad scientists everywhere!

Some of my writer friends are going barking mad waiting for their books to come out. Especially the newbies. I have decided the only solution is for the world’s mad scientists to drop whatever they’re working on1 and instead invent a brain patch that stops the thinking-bout-next-book-coming-out part of the brain.

Could you do it now-ish, please? Some of my friends are OUT OF CONTROL.

I, of course, am completely sane and rational as I wait for Liar to come out.

  1. Turning us all into twitttering pod people, taking over the world’s supply of mangosteens, turning the lakes of Canada purple etc. etc. []

Flying things seen from our flat

flying foxes
myna birds (alas)
white ibis
rainbow lorikeets
sulphur crested cockatoos

Heard but not seen:


We’ve learned that the flying foxes fly past at the same height as our flat—so we can see and hear them clearly—mostly when it’s raining or there’s low cloud cover. They’re way up high when the skies are clear. So, um, there has been much praying for rain. There weren’t nearly as many flying foxes in Sydney when I was a kid so I never get tired of seeing them.

Same for rainbow lorikeets. They’ve been everywhere over the last week. Yesterday they decided to distract me by landing on our deck directly in front of where I sat writing on our couch. I mean seriously how am I supposed to keep working with them frolicking about in front of me? Here’s a photo Scott took after I called for him to come down from the study and check ’em out:

And here’s a close up:

They hung around for about half an hour. Chirping to each other and to the other lorikeets perched on nearby buildings. Um, no, I got no work done during that time.

Why, yes, I am loving our new digs. It’s amazing how having a view changes everything.

And, I kid you not, another flock of ’em flew past just as I was about to publish this. Their brilliant greens, reds, blues and yellows even more intense against the grey sky. Leaving this place is going to be such a wrench. I want to stay forever.

Zombies! + book divas + banned books week

It is with great sadness that I realise I haven’t posted about zombies in ages. That’s SO wrong. Fortunately, Cecil Castellucci sent me a link to this science article all about how we all have an inner zombie:

[S]tarting in the late 1960s, psychologists and neurologists began to find evidence that our self-aware part is not always in charge. Researchers discovered that we are deeply influenced by perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires about which we have no awareness. Their research raised the disturbing possibility that much of what we think and do is thought and done by an unconscious part of the brain—an inner zombie.

Notice that it’s not an inner uni***n; it’s an inner zombie. I think that proves once and for all time that zombies are more powerful, interesting and make for way better metaphors than smelly old uni***ns.

Take that, Holly Black!

I am now off to Michigan to talk about the glories of zombies fairies with the locals. Posting may be erratic for the next few days. Though I will, as usual, do my valiant best to post every day.

I will also be popping in to chat at Book Divas this week: 29 September through to 6 October. So if you’re a member or want to join do go check it out. I will answer any question you might have. Any question at all!

Today, or, oops, yesterday is also the first day of Banned Books Week. Maureen Johnson has a fabulous post about it over at YA for Obama, with which I agree entirely. On some topics she’s completely wrong but when it comes to banning books and zombies you can totally trust her.

Go forth and read a banned book!

I wish I had studied maths

I stopped studying maths in Year 7. Before that I’d made a bit of an effort but in my first year of high school (in New South Wales high school starts in Year 7) I downed tools. I was bored, annoyed, and couldn’t see the point so I quit. Technically I kept going to maths class—it was compulsory until the end of Year 10—but I failed each year and was never made to repeat. I didn’t learn anything new after Year 6.

At the time I thought it was excellent that I could get away with it. In class I read novels under the desk. I never studied and finished my maths exams quicker than anyone else cause I guessed all the answers. Thus giving me more time to read novels.

Now I regret it. My regret is very very very big. Because now I don’t have the underpinnings to understand even the most basic mathematics and science. (I also stopped studying science very early.) Writing the Magic or Madness trilogy was a nightmare. It’s very difficult to write a character who is a mathematical prodigy when you yourself are a mathematical moron.

My current regret, however, is fuelled by the Rethinking Basketball blog. Quentin who writes it is a numbers boy. He has all sorts of fancy formulas and statistics to map the performances of different WNBA players and teams. Like how to take defence into account when figuring out who the Most Valuable Player should be.

I understand almost none of it and that fact fills me with despair. If I could go back in time I would tell the bored and cranky twelve-year-old me that maths would come in handy later on and I should really pay attention to the nice man. (My Year 7 maths teacher was a sweetie, who did not deserve me as a student.)

But plenty of people—including my parents—were telling me that at the time and I ignored them. I probably would have ignored the adult me as well. Sigh.

So it’s now more than a little bit ironic that I am in the position of telling twelve year olds that they should pay attention in maths class. But you really really should. Who knows when or where it will come in handy. But trust me, it will. Don’t be as stupid as I was.

This has been a public service announcement. You are most welcome.

Itchy grossness

There’s a fascinating article in The New Yorker, “The Itch” by Atul Gawande. It’s all about what causes itching, how we experience it, and what happens when it goes horribly wrong. HORRIBLY WRONG.

The case the article revolves around is so gross that I had to stop reading for awhile. Me, who is a connousieur of grossness, who is proud of how gross my story in the First Kiss anthology is. And yet I feel compelled to share. Since I am a good person I will share after the cut.

WARNING: If you are easily grossed out DO NOT continue reading. If you have ever had shingles DO NOT continue reading. I am not kidding about this warning.

Continue reading

Dingo urine saves lives

Tasmanian marsupial lives that is. Scientists back home have discovered that marsupials really really really don’t like dingo pee. They avoid it like the plague which means that farmers and the forestry industry can stop poisoning wildlife in order to protect crops. Spray the wee around and the critters stay away and the crops grow unmolested. Everybody wins.

Apparently it also makes a really lovely perfume.1

  1. No, not really. []


This post comes to you because I casually mentioned that my insomnia had been cured and immediately got an avalanche of letters saying, “Tell! How? I must know!”

So now I tell.

It’s not easy and it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, the sleep doctor who put me on this regime said that the vast majority of his clients cannot stick to it and thus never find out whether it works for them or not. That’s because it’s very difficult for most people. Especially those with children. On top of that there are a (small) set of people who are addicted to their lack of sleep and the drama of it, but cannot admit that to themselves, and thus cannot undertake a systematic change of their sleep habits.

With this regime you have to change your sleep habits and make them regular, which is really really hard:

  • You are only allowed to sleep in bed—no reading or writing or anything else.
  • You’re not allowed to sleep during the day. Not even the teeniest, tiniest nap.
  • You go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning—to start with make them at least five hours apart.
  • An hour before you go to bed have a hot bath. This is to raise your core body temp which will then drop in the hour before you go to bed. If you don’t have a bath do some not-too-vigorour exercise for half an hour to raise your temperature. Don’t take a shower because that will wake you up.
  • You need to get up in the first hour of dawn and go out and walk or run around in the sunshine for at least 15 minutes. This is to set your something or other. Can’t remember what you call it.
  • If you can’t sleep when you go to bed, get up, and do something until you get tired again. Then go back to bed, if again you can’t sleep, get up, and do something else. This can go on until it’s time to get up. You then have to get up cause you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.

There you have it: that’s what cured my insomnia. If you stick to it it’s very likely you’ll be sleeping again.

As I said, though, sticking to it is the hard part. Did I mention how difficult it is?

I was in the ideal situation to try it: I was living with people who were not disturbed by my getting up at 5AM every morning, who were also not disturbed by my being up half the night, and my being shitty all day long when I couldn’t take a nap to cope with not having slept the night before.1

I was also a research fellow at a university where I had no fixed office hours and taught no classes. My duties were to research and write and publish. Undertaking this regime is a lot harder if you work nine to five or even longer hours and if you have children, pets or other responsibilities.

On the other hand, if your insomnia is really bad anyways this regime is probably not a whole lot worse than what you’re already going through.

When I started out I went to bed at midnight and got up at 5AM. The first week I did not sleep more than an hour or two during designated sleeping hours, but after that my sleeping crept up to three, four and then the full five hours. Then I expanded my sleeping to six.

I stuck to the regime for a few more months. First I experimented with not doing the bath thing and was still able to sleep. Then I let myself sleep longer than six hours and miss the dawn walk. When that didn’t affect my sleep I started going to to bed when I felt like it not at midnight every single night. Eventually I was back to normal.

Now—almost seven years later—I sleep fine. I do occasionally have sleepless nights. But they don’t freak me out the way they used to. I’m not afraid of insomnia any more—I’ve had long bouts of it since I was a kid. I now know what to do if an extended bout happens again. It’s a good feeling.

I think part of what used to happen when I was locked into crap sleep patterns was that I’d be so wound up about not sleeping that it made everything worse. I’d lie in bed for hours waiting for sleep to come, getting angrier, and more depressed, and less likely to sleep. At the same time, in a weird way, I was addicted to not sleeping. It felt romantic to be up in the early hours writing when the rest of the world was sleeping. I was convinced that I wrote my best stuff when I couldn’t sleep. I even thought my red eyes and pinched insomnia face were romantic. After all lots of famous writers have struggled with sleep. Writers are meant to be miserable and tortured, aren’t they?

Having learned how to beat my insomnia, I also beat those stupid romantic ideas out of myself. None of my fiction written while suffering from insomnia has ever been published. All my published novels are the product of a happy well-slept author.

  1. Thank you, Jan and John! []

Gah! We cannot wins!

All my life I have stayed out of the sun, diligently following the instructions of the anti-skin cancer campaigns. I have slipped on a long-sleeved shirt, slopped on sunscreen, and slapped on a hat.1 As a result (unlike quite a few people back home) I’ve never had any skin cancer scares. But it turns out that I’ve been putting myself at risk of rickets:

MILLIONS of Australians are exposing themselves to bone disease, fractures, diabetes and cancers by failing to get enough vitamin D, a crucial nutrient produced when skin is exposed to sunlight.

Experts have warned the highly acclaimed “Slip Slop Slap” campaign may have been taken too far by a nation terrified of skin cancer.

So I’ve avoided skin cancer but now my bones are going to spontaneously fracture? Fabulous. What to do? Apparently there’s a very “fine line between getting enough sun exposure for adequate vitamin D levels but not too much to cause DNA damage that leads to skin cancer.” My cause of action is clear then: I should go out in the sun more but not too much more. Um, where exactly is that thin line?

I shouldn’t be surprised. This is how the world works, innit? Everything is more complicated and tricky than it seems at first. Everything is a balance. Nothing is black and white. Still, I quite liked having one certainty: that minimising my exposure to the sun was good for me.

Le sigh. And of course here I am stuck in a place with absolutely no sunlight. Pass me those Vitamin D tablets, please? Thank you.

  1. That campaign turned me into a life-long hat addict. []

Sleep and dreams

I am fascinated by dreams and sleep and how they work and how little we know about them. According to Science Times, the New York Times weekly science section, we know a lot more than we used to.

According to the Benedict Carey reporting for the Times insomnia “makes you more reckless, more emotionally fragile, less able to concentrate and almost certainly more vulnerable to infection.”

I so knew all of those ones too. Though I’m shocked they left out accident prone. I have had much insomnia in my life and way to make the accidents! Sheesh. I’m so glad my insomnia has been cured.

Apparently the whole thing about “sleeping on it” to figure out a problem is totally true. I so knew that one too! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to bed completely freaked out about a plot problem and woken up knowing how to fix it. Or at least how to get to where I can fix it.

I also got gazillions of story ideas from my dreams and nightmares. And when I don’t sleep I’m buggered.

Pretty much all the articles in this week’s Science Times are worth a squiz.

Though sadly there’s no article about how 99% of people should be banned from telling other people their dreams. See, it’s not that dreams are boring; it’s that most people are really boring at relating their dreams. I had a friend—back home in Sydney—who was brilliant at telling her dreams. I looked forward to it!

Do any of you find your dreams useful? And not just for writing. Please to tell. But, no telling of the dreams! Boring dream recounting is verbotten!

A real life Reason Cansino

Reason Cansino, the protag of my Magic or Madness trilogy, is somewhat of a mathematical prodigy, but she pales in comparison to Terence Tao:

By age two, he had learned to read. At 9, he attended college math classes. At 20, he finished his Ph.D.

Now 31, he has grown from prodigy to one of the world’s top mathematicians.

. . .

“I always liked numbers,” he said.

A 2-year-old Terry Tao used toy blocks to show older children how to count. He was aquick with language and used the blocks to spell words like “dog” and “cat.”

. . .

At age 5, he was enrolled in a public school, and his parents, adminstrators and teachers set up an individualized program for him. He proceeded through each subject at his own pace, quickly accelerating through several grades in maths and science while remaining closer to his age group in other subjects. In English classes, for instance, he became flustered when he had to write essays.

“I never really got the hang of that,” he said. “These very vague, undefined questions. i always liked situations where there were very clear rules of what to do.”

Assigned to write a story about what was going on at home, Terry went from room to room and made detailed lists of the contents.

I love that last image of the boy writing lists, rather than a story. Though, of course, depending on how he ordered them, they could well wind up being one. Harper’s Index is jampacked with stories. Many of them deeply disturbing.

I can’t imagine Reason making lists in quite that way (though in the early chapters of Magic or Madness she is pretty methodical as she notes the contents of the rooms of her grandmother’s house) but I can totally see her using blocks to teach other kids to count. And if she were to survive the last book of the trilogy1 I see her going on to be a mathematician. Maybe she’d be working on primes just like Mr Tao. They do sing to her.

The Times article on Tao is a lovely portrait of someone who hasn’t been wrecked by being a prodigy. Nice to have a counter to all those stories of prodigies who crash and burn.

  1. Do not ask for I will not tell you. []

Atlantic City? No, thanks. (updated)

I don’t want to rubbish a whole city, especially when I was only there for a few hours, but Atlantic City is an erky perky bleah of a place. Friends warned me it was a shithole—I had no idea they were being kind. It’s ugly, full of the most hideous buildings ever built and populated by zombie gamblers, who are served by an army of twelve-year-old incompetent staff. Once you’re inside one of the casinos it’s almost impossible to get out again. All signs lead to more gambling areas. I’m convinced that hell will be nothing but Atlantic City casinos.

This is heresy for an Australian, but, I hate gambling. I love cards and I’ll bet on them, but not with money. Never for money. Betting with money turns people into glassy-eyed zombies, and call me old-fasthioned, but I prefer my zombies in Romero films, thank you very much.

So why were we in Atlantic City? To attend the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers book fair, which other than its location in a hellspawn casino, was a lot of fun. We met the fabulous Penguin reps, Holly and Todd, who looked after us excellently well and told great publishing stories; we hung out with fellow YA writers, Maureen Johnson and Melissa Kantor; we both signed a bunch of our books, Peeps and Magic or Madness, and we snaffled up many free books. The gems of my pile—other than Maureen’s and Melissa’s books—were:

Small Steps by Louis Sachar, which is the sequel to Holes! Woo hoo! I have the sequel to Holes and you don’t! Ha! Ha! Ha!

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. I adore Flannery. He’s frequently interviewed back home about science and enviromental issues and is the smartest, most interesting, and clearest explainers of such issues I’ve ever heard. He also writes really, really well. I can’t wait to read this one, not least because I know it’s going to help me understand what happened with hurricane Katrina.

Today, we go back to New Jersey:

Elizabeth Main Library
11 S. Broad St., Elizabeth
New Jersey

We’ll probably read and we’ll definitely chat and generally be our entertaining selves. We’ve only done one library event before but it was fabulous, so I’m really looking forward to this.

Oh, and if you’re from Atlantic City? My condolences.

Update: I am very stupid. I wrote a blog entry about casinos, but my spam filter is set to nuke any comments that contain the word “casino”. I apologise to anyone who had their comment nuked. You can post now. Though given the vast tide of casino spam I get your comment will go through to moderation, which I truly rooly honestly will check. Rooly soon.

What was Really Found

Remember that recent study that got all the publicity about overweightness and obesity not being such a big deal? Well, fabulous science writer, Rebecca Skloot, explains it all in a way that makes sense. Thank you!

My maths and science education sort of petered out in about year seven, so I’m always incredibly grateful for anyone who can help me understand such matters.